The Great Debate: When Parents and Schools Disagree about Curricular Choices 

By Lesley Dorhout, Laura Maxey, and Erin Conn

Disagreement and misunderstanding over curricular choices present perhaps one of the greatest threats to the parent-school partnership. Teachers and administrators engage in serious and often difficult conversations when parents question literature their students read and discuss in class. Through reflection and effort to promote best practice, schools can mitigate controversy surrounding course material and preserve the parent-school relationship. To reduce contention and build relationships, we suggest implementing a systematic process, while also planning for extensive, intentional communication coupled with abundant God-empowered grace and empathy. 

School Dynamics

The presence of sin is not exempt from Christian communities. Even covenant-model schools—Christian schools for Christian families—can experience difficulty in curricular implementation. Jesus binds, but doctrine and opinion can still divide. As a result, the parent and faculty partnership can become strained and even fractured. While questioning the curriculum, parents may voice distrust of teachers; teachers may feel their professionalism discredited; and administrators may grow bewildered as they strive to support teachers while also understanding curricular questions and parental concerns.

This contingency for controversy applies to nearly all subject matters (e.g., science and evolution, history and bias, literature and censorship), and still teachers must strive to thoroughly equip students with what Gloria Ladson-Billings describes as culturally relevant curriculum (159). Teaching culturally relevant material, while simultaneously aligning with various walks of faith and opinions, necessitates a thorough curricular examination through the lens of multiple stakeholders, such as students, parents, school personnel, churches, and communities (159). Based on our combined and varied experiences as principal, professor, program director, department chair, classroom teacher, and parent, we recommend developing a process for adopting or refining a curricular canon, much like the one below.

Process for Curricular Implementation

Because stakes are high and the mission to educate the next generation is critical, selecting texts and materials to train students with excellence and relevance is of utmost importance. Schools should prioritize creating their own systematic procedure for curricular implementation, as varying opinions, even in Christian communities, can cause unnecessary division and strife if a clearly defined process and defense is not in place. A simple strategy could include the following four steps: investigate, discuss and decide, communicate, and respond with Matthew 18.

Step 1: Investigate

 The teacher intending to expand the current curriculum completes an online search, looking specifically for reviews and controversies surrounding the potential course material. The online search likely reveals any reviews curious parents will see if they investigate class texts. The teacher must consider opinions and conversations that may ensue with concerned parents if the material is adopted. Teachers should also look for possible misunderstandings surrounding the material. Maybe the book is appropriate, but the movie is not. Maybe the short story is appropriate, but the novel is not. Maybe the title being considered is appropriate, but another text with the same title (but different author) is not. The investigation should also consider any possibility of guilt by association.The teacher must weigh the caliber of the material with the contingency for controversy. If the teacher would like to move forward in adoption, the material is then discussed with an expanded group, including the department and administration.

Step 2: Discuss and Decide

If the suggested text is defensible after step 1, the teacher brings the text to the department level. Department members, along with the principal or administrator, discuss potential disputes embedded within the material, recognizing that we live in a fallen world with nearly every text containing some element of sin. The group must decide if the rationale and context for teaching—measured with the anticipation of parental concerns—warrant the addition of the material to the canon. A simple “pros and cons” list may be part of this step, but the discussion and decision may also take several weeks to complete if the group chooses to closely review the text. The end of the discussion step results in a decision to adopt or not. 

Step 3: Communicate 

Often the parental alarm is raised when parents receive information without a greater context. Intentional communication can prevent or assuage this alarm. When teachers make the effort to communicate well, they can better control the course narrative by highlighting positive aspects of class material, acknowledging any controversial aspects, and providing a rationale for their choices. The exact text, author, format, publication date, and ISBN number should be clearly communicated to parents to avoid guilt by association. 

We suggest teachers use the Learning Management System (LMS) to provide curricular context, including key concepts and educational outcomes based on the text or unit. The information on the LMS provides parents with the big picture and serves to dispel miscommunication, misinformation, and conflict. Populating the LMS with ample learning material and helpful links associated with the learning goals provides families with useful resources and promotes transparency from the school to the home, thereby reinforcing the parent-school partnership. Newsletters and email also serve well for sharing the larger purpose for a unit.

Step 4: Respond with Matthew 18

In instances where parents still disagree with curricular choices, relying on the Matthew 18 principle promotes a pathway forward. This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print or digital edition of Christian Educators Journal.

Work Cited

Ladson‐Billings, Gloria. “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” Theory into Practice, vol. 34, no. 3, 1995, pp. 159–65.

Dr. Lesley Dorhout returned to K–12 after teaching and researching at the university level. She has published academic works focusing on literacy, online learning, and student success. Though an action researcher, she prefers to be in the classroom learning alongside her students. 

After serving with AmeriCorps as a College Guide for underserved high school students, Laura Maxey (MA) began her teaching career as an 8th–12th grade English teacher. Now she is the English Department Chair and is passionate about student literacy and growth. 

Mrs. Erin Conn (MAT) is an Upper School principal at a PreK–12 school and has devoted her career to Christian education. Before entering administration, she served as an Upper School English instructor and curriculum coordinator. She enjoys supporting faculty, students, and parents.